Breed Discrimination: Stereotyping or Common Sense?
BY ANNA McHUGH
Stereotypes are not helpful when they’re used to make moral judgements – they’re information routines, not moral laws.
I had a philosophy lecturer at university who quipped that ‘the plural of anecdotes is data’. It made us laugh, partly because of its unscientific basis, but also because it was nonetheless how many discoveries had been made. The epigram perfectly illustrated the double-edged sword that is stereotyping.
Like the body, the human brain has routines to which it defaults in order to make information-processing easier. Although we’re built to cope with more information than the fastest supercomputer, with the biggest memory, on a moment-to-moment basis we rely on lots of little shortcuts to make things less stressful for the brain-engine.
Stereotyping is one of those shortcuts. Stereotypes have a bad name – we tell kids not to do it and pick up people who apply stereotypes to others for their prejudicial behaviour.
The inherent problems of stereotyping
However, there are several points in favour of stereotypes. One is that it allows individual people to rely on a communal fund of knowledge and experience, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they do something. Another is that, until proven wrong, it’s a relatively scientific way to approach things: if something has worked out a certain way three or four times, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that it’ll do so a fifth time, if everything else is the same.
Stereotypes are not helpful when they’re used to make moral judgements – they’re information routines, not moral laws. They’re also unhelpful when the person applying them doesn’t have some first-hand experience of the thing, or when they can’t be sure that the circumstances with which they’re faced are the same as those which produced the stereotype.
Stereotyping dog breeds
Reactions to certain dog breeds are a case in point. Most people have never actually handled a Pit Bull, German Shepherd, Rottweiler, or Doberman, which are the most discriminated-against breeds. So they have no first-hand experience of them. And if they have, they often can’t guarantee that the dog which they’ve seen had the same background as the ones which gave rise to the stereotype.
The systems of information communication by which we receive information are highly selective about which data they include. When a Pit Bull injures a child, reports rarely mention that the dog had been puppy-farmed, used for fighting, had six owners, and was underfed. The Poodle which bites a child, however, does have those things included.
The troubling effects of ‘card stacking’
Most Pit Bulls, German Shepherds Dogs, Rottweilers and Dobermans come from loving family homes, and are very well socialised. The breeds have had a troubling history of terrible abuse by people who use them for violent purposes, breeding and training the dog to be as destructive as possible, and who are rarely in evidence when the dog injures someone.
The systems of information communication by which we receive and reform information – newspapers, television, word of mouth, visual information like seeing people on the street – are highly selective about which data they include. When a Pit Bull injures a child, reports rarely mention that the dog had been puppy-farmed, used for fighting, had six owners, and was underfed. The Poodle which bites a child, however, does have those things included. The effect is called card stacking, and is an old trick in political propaganda. It’s basically uneven reporting: by including only the bare facts of the Pit Bull incident, the human brain infers that ‘Pit Bulls are characteristically biters’. By including all the facts of the Poodle incident, the human brain infers that ‘Poodles are uncharacteristically biters’.
Better – and safer – stereotyping
In fact, a better stereotype to shape from the information is that ‘untrained or abused dogs can bite’. Like the stereotypical warning, ‘if you don’t know what it does, don’t touch it’, it’s common sense to boil that information down to, ‘If you don’t know the dog’s background, be careful’, as well as ‘Dogs from happy homes are usually happy dogs’.
As any owner of a Pit Bull will tell you, breed discrimination happens in every period: Paris Hilton and her handbag chihuahuas is an example of positive breed discrimination. Gangsta-type would-be ‘tough guys’ with Pit Bulls straining at a too-short leash is an example of negative breed discrimination – the owners are overtly implying that the dog is anti-social and dangerous.
Stereotypes, therefore, are helpful routines when we have little information; once we have more information, it’s more efficient to revise the stereotype to see whether it still applies. If not, dispense with it. Give all breeds the benefit of the doubt: although the breed may have been created for one purpose, an owner must activate that behaviour in the dog by training and handling. If a dog of any breed is aggressive, it indicates that an owner has activated and encouraged the behaviour, not that the dog or the breed is naturally ‘bad’.
To find out more about breed discrimination you can read the information provided on this webiste: http://petsaustralia.org/the-big-issues/bsl-breed-discrimination-bad-policy/.